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This post originally appeared on Book Riot

On March 27, astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko blasted off from Kazakhstan in Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to spend one year living on the International Space Station – the longest amount of time two people will have ever spent at ISS. The point of the mission is to start looking at the long-term effects that living in space could have on the human body… before we start planning a future manned mission to Mars. Going to Mars!

the martian by andy weirTo celebrate the start of this major scientific study, I wanted to work on a book pairing for one of the most fun audio books of 2014, The Martian by Andy Weir. The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, an American astronaut who – six days after being one of the first people to walk on Mars – has been left for dead on the Red Planet.

He can’t contact his crewmates or NASA and doesn’t have enough supplies to make it until the next mission to Mars… it looks grim. But Watney is not one to just give up and, using his engineering skills, ingenuity, and sense of humor, is going to try and survive. It’s such a great read (or listen – the audio book is fantastic).

packing for mars by mary roachAnd happily, there are many great nonfiction books that will pair well with The Martian. One of my favorite books on space is Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Roach is an incredibly funny science writer who has explored everything from ghosts to sex to what happens to dead bodies.

In Packing for Mars, she looks at both what it means to explore space and how NASA tries to figure out the best ways make exploration feasible. There are lots of gross things – how to use space toilets or how astronauts deal with nausea – as well as tons of stuff I’d never even thought about. And Roach’s writing is so approachable. She’s one of the writers I consistently recommend for people trying to get into reading more nonfiction.

an astronaut's guide to life on earth by chris hadfieldIf you are curious what it is like to be an astronaut, a great book I just recently finished is An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield. Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut who went on several space missions and even served as commander of the International Space Station. He became a bit famous on his ISS stint thanks to his use of social media and a video he made (with the help of his son) of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while there (it’s delightful).

In the memoir, Hadfield writes about what it took to become an astronaut, as well as the things being an astronaut has taught him about hard work and being part of a team. Hadfield has a charming and warm sense of humor – a lot like Mark Watney, actually – and manages to be honest about life as an astronaut without throwing anyone else under the bus. This one was full of weird facts about what happens to astronauts in space – all of the calluses on their feet fall off because they don’t walk anywhere! – that I know I’ll be thinking about as I follow Scott Kelly’s year in space.

There are tons of other books I could have recommended. When I mentioned I was looking for more books on space, others recommended Out of Orbit by Chris Jones and Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean (May 19, Graywolf). I just started Leaving Orbit and it’s really excellent. And I know there are more. What are your favorite books about space travel?


Bookshelf Tour Part I: The Living Room

bookshelf tour part 1

The first thing I do when I visit someone new for the first time is sneak a few peeks at their bookshelves. The books we save and display can tell a lot, especially if you start talking to someone about them. I’ve been meaning to do a little bookshelf tour of our house since we moved in last August… but just got my act together to do part of it over the weekend. The bookshelves in my office are, at the moment, to much of a disaster to put on the Internet, so instead, I’m going to show off the bookshelves in my living room.

I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a wall of books, but because we’re renters that’s impossible. This arrangement — two tall bookshelves with a bookshelf functioning as a tv stand — is about as close as I’m going to get until we own a house. It’s not quite perfect, but boy, do I love it. The shelves contain, almost entirely, books that I’ve read and loved enough to keep.

nonfiction shelf 600The shelf on the left side of the room is for nonfiction. It’s arranged mostly alphabetically by author, but I do have some large hardcovers sitting horizontally because it seems to save space and I like the way it looks better. I’ve toyed with the idea of arranging books by color, but I also think that can look staged. This feels more “natural” to me. Oh my gosh, I’m such a nerd.

They’re a little hard to see, but the shelves are also decorated with some of my favorite things. I bought the paintings on the top shelf when I was in college. The bowls on a middle shelf were a gift from a college friend who took a potter class. There are many little figurines of pigs on the shelves because they’re my favorite animal (weird, I know). The frame near the bottom as one of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

The first book on the top left of the shelf is One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, and the last book on the bottom right is Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf.

middle shelf 600

The middle shelf is one we bought new when we moved into this house so our old tv stand (which I did not like) could be used with our second tv in the basement. Since it was new, this one has been the most challenging to try and fill decoratively — I ended up focusing it on favorites and books that I think go together (regardless of whether I’ve read them or not).

The top left is some favorite YA books: His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, and some Rainbow Rowell. Bottom left is all of my fiction comic books, including trades of series like Saga and Alex + Ada and individual volumes like The Sculptor by Scott McCloud and Seconds by Brian Lee O’Malley. I’ve read some, but not all, of these comics.

The middle shelves have books by Anne Fadiman on the top, The Magician’s trilogy (minus a book borrowed to a friend) in the middle, and my favorite nonfiction on the bottom — Tiny Beautiful ThingsThe Empathy ExamsThe Spirit Catches You and You Fall DownThis Life Is In Your Hands and The Poisoner’s Handbook. On the right side you’ll find the Harry Potter series and my nonfiction comics/illustrated books.

fiction shelf 600The tall shelf on the right is more of a mixed bag. In our old house, I only had a small shelf for fiction that I read and loved enough to keep. I had to do a little mixing of genres to fill this one up entirely.

The top three shelves are for adult fiction. The first book on the top left is Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, followed closely by my Margaret Atwood collection. The last fiction book on shelf three is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak… but now I’m thinking maybe that should be on the YA shelf? In any case, the fiction on shelf three is followed by all of my Best American Essays volumes and my books with other reading lists of books.

The fourth shelf is a mix of young adult fiction, some YA-focused nonfiction, fantasy and poetry. It’s probably the most eclectic shelf of books in my entire house because I like my books to be organized. The mixing sort of drives me crazy. The bottom shelf is for classics, starting with my Norton anthologies from college. I really feel like I should get rid of those… but I just can’t.

And if you look closely you can see more pigs, a photo of my grandpa, and some customized mini Coke cans the boyfriend’s mom gave to us.

So there you have it, a little peek at some of the bookshelves in my house. I’ll try to get my office a little more cleaned up and share those shelves soon. How do you have your bookshelves organized?


Currently | Quiet Mornings Are Meant for Reading

currently april 12 2015

Time and Place | 7:20 a.m. on my couch. I went to sleep really early both nights this weekend, mostly so I could be up early and enjoy the quiet. Quiet weekend mornings are my favorites.

Reading | I didn’t get much reading done during the week — I was feeling emotionally strung out — so I made a point to spend as much time as possible with books the last couple of days. I finished Lumberjanes, Vol. 1 (the first trade paperback), then read issues #5 through #8 on Scribd (an ebook subscription service). I also finished a wonderful memoir by war photographer Lynsey Addario, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, that I can’t wait to write about this week. I’m not sure yet what my reading today has in store.

Watching | The boyfriend and I watched 1984 on Saturday night, and we’re heading to a friend’s house to watch the premier of Game of Thrones tonight on HBO. The Washington Post did a sweet infographic of all the deaths in the tv series so far — check it out!

Cooking | We had beautiful weather this weekend, so the boyfriend pulled out our little grill for steaks Friday and Saturday night (thanks to an Omaha Steaks delivery from his mom). Yum yum yum.

Blogging | This week I asked for book recommendations ahead of a big trip to London I’m taking with my sister this fall, and reviewed a very interesting memoir, Smash Cut by Brad Gooch.

Hating | I finished my last Cadbury Creme Egg of the season yesterday afternoon. They are one of my guilty pleasures.

Loving | Last Sunday, I noticed that my Grandma has one of my recent newspaper columns displayed on her refrigerator. It made me smile.

Sharing | I’m not sure what word to use to introduce this… As you may or may not know, a fellow book blogger has experienced an unimaginable loss. Justin DeChantal, son of Shelia at Book Journey, was killed in a car accident on April 4. I never met Justin, but I know from talking with Shelia and reading her blog that she had close, loving relationships with both of her sons. This story from the Brainerd Dispatch about Justin shares so much about him and his wonderful family.

A couple of bloggers stepped up and helped organize a fund for a bench in Justin’s honor at the Brainerd Public Library. It’s a small thing, but it felt like exactly the right way to show Shelia the support of her online community. The donations are now closed — bloggers donated more than double what was needed in just a few short days — but please do keep the DeChantal family in your thoughts.


Smash CutIn 1978, Brad Gooch was a struggling writer living in a studio apartment in the West Village in Manhattan. Helped along by a mixture of cigarettes, marijuana and vodka, Gooch spent his days trying to string words together before heading out at night. During one of these binges, Gooch meant film student Howard Brookner. The two immediately connected, starting a complicated relationship that would weather various personal and professional challenges until Howard’s untimely death from AIDS in 1989.

In Smash Cut, Gooch tells the story of their relationship, set against the wild, bohemian life of New York City in the 1970s and the challenging, heartbreaking reality of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. This lovely, challenging memoir showed me so much about a time period I didn’t know much about and piqued my interest in learning more.

One of the things about this memoir that interested me the most is that Smash Cut is a love story told at a time when there really was no model for what a gay love story could or should be. In a time when so many people were starting to explore their sexuality in a secret but semi-public way, it’s not surprising that relationships would be more fluid and complicated than seems comfortable today. As Gooch writes in the introduction:

When Howard and I were together in a complex fandango that included living together, and living separately, and being monogamous, and pursuing three-ways, or separate boyfriends, the option of two men having a legal marriage, recognized under state law, did not even remotely exist. We were boyfriends, or lovers, or friends with a capital F, but not husbands, or even partners. No event horizon for such a life choice was at all visible.

This is, I think, one of the central threads of the memoir, how these two men who clearly loved and cared for each other deeply, navigated all of the traditional demands of a relationship – careers and families and friends and finances – in a context where a traditional partnership wasn’t even possible. Gooch is able to write about these different tensions beautifully, and shows well some of the conflicts he and Brookner faced together and apart.

One of the areas where I felt the memoir lacked a little bit is in some of the broader contexts about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Although Gooch acknowledges this a bit in the introduction, I couldn’t help wishing I’d read this memoir as a pairing with a book I’ve been meaning to read forever – And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. As much as I enjoyed this memoir, I also wanted to know more about how the AIDS crisis developed and what some of the different public and governmental responses were like. Smash Cut is intimately focused on this single relationship which is lovely but also, in some ways, a limiting perspective.

But like I said, it’s hard to fault a book for not doing everything you hope it will do when the author clearly indicates that it’s his intention to focus closely to a single story. Instead, I’ll leave you with this final paragraph from the introduction of the book, which I think sums it all up rather better than I can:

There is no way for me to separate out the story of the fabulousness and horror of the years from 1978 to 1989, and a little before and a little after, from Howard – my lover, or my boyfriend, or Friend, or whatever we were to each other. Writing down my own lyrics to that song that I can’t get out of my head, I wind up coming back to Howard, as that era for me always meant coming home to Howard, whatever “home” meant for us. If I were forced to choose one trait that defined us, and our generation, and those times, I’d have to say that we were romantics. It was a romantic time. The history I’m left with turns out to be of Howard and Brad, face-to-face, with some very interesting, very lively action going on in the deep background.

I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher as part of a TLC Book Tour

tlc logoOther Tour Stops: (April 7) missris | (April 8) Freda’s Voice | (April 10) Raven Haired Girl | (April 13) Inner Workings of the Female Mind | (April 16) In the Garden of Eva | (April 21) Bell, Book and Candle | (April 22) Wordsmithonia | (April 23) Bibliotica | (April 27) Reviews by Amos Lassen | (April 28) Conceptual Reception | (April 29) Queerly Seen | (April 30) Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers | (May 1) Thoughts on This ‘n That


Bon Voyage: A Reading List for London

bon voyage

This fall, my sister and I will be going on a three week trip to London, Bath and Greece. Our plan is to celebrate my sister finally becoming a licensed architect by sightseeing, going to high tea and, near the end of the trip, spending a couple of days sitting on a beach in the Mediterranean. We are ridiculously excited.

that's not english by erin mooreRight about the time we were settling on dates for our trip, I was offered a review copy of That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore. Of course I accepted it, and flew through it a fit of excitement just after my sister and I booked our plane tickets.

In the book, Moore looks at some of the big and small differences in British and American English, and what those differences can show us about British and American culture. The words and topics she chooses range from relationships to drinking to reserve versus enthusiasm. It’s both delightful in the topics it chooses and, really, a great primer on some of the language issues that we might across while abroad. If you’re at all interested how language affects culture, this is a book you’ll want to pick up.

Because we’re both readers, we’ve been collecting and sharing and getting excited about other British books – both nonfiction and fiction – that we can read ahead of our trip. Here are some that we’ve grabbed so far:

Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (nonfiction) – This is a new one out last month from PublicAffairs, a look at the crisis in the British monarchy following Prince Edward’s abdication at the start of World War II. This topic has been well-covered, but I’m intrigued by the fact that the book focuses on all four of George V’s sons.

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey (nonfiction) – I love Catherine Bailey’s books about aristocratic British families. In this one she covers the “Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.” It promises feuds, scandals and civil unrest.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (fiction) – I’ve been wanting to read this book, a fictional account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VII’s reign, ever since I finished watching The Tudors, but I’m trying to hold off… I think this is going to be the book I take on the plane with me.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia McNeal (fiction) – This is the first book in a quartet of mysteries featuring a young intelligence officer working as a typist at No. 10 Downing Street at the opening of World War II. My sister has read the first two in this series and said they’re great.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (fiction) – Can you believe I’ve never read this book? Heading to London seems like a good time to remedy that situation.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (fiction) – The panelists on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, recently did an episode on this book. The story of a female comedian on a popular television show in 1960s London also sounds charming.

Of course we are always looking for more options. What are some of your favorite books about London (or Bath, or Greece). We would love your suggestions!